Porgy & Bess at the English National Opera
Porgy & Bess, the folk opera composed by George Gershwin with the libretto by the original author, DuBose Heyward and Lyricist, Ira Gershwin, was first performed in Boston in 1935. The libretto tells the story of Porgy, a black disabled street beggar living in the Charleston slums, attempting to rescue his love, Bess, from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and her drug dealer, Sporting Life.
Previously, some great singers have taken the two lead roles, including Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry and Willard White, amongst others – in recent times Angel Blue wowing the audience in Seattle a few years ago.
Gershwin blessed Porgy & Bess as a folk opera, because when he began work on the score he wanted the music to be all of one piece, but still to include his written spirituals and folk songs and thus being in operatic form he called it a folk opera.
This new production – unsurprisingly 90 percent sold – is directed by the American Stage Director, James Robinson, who is currently the artistic Director of the Opera Theatre of St Louis. He and his Set Designer, Michael Yeargan, give us a fairly traditional set of the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1930s. It is all open plan with tinned roofed houses on a circular turntable, which works well for the different scenes in the 3 Acts. Perhaps it is almost slightly too pristine with the sets clean and tidy and the tinned roofs new and sparkling! Even the beautiful costumes by the Designer, Catherine Zuber, were all clean and ironed. They will surely dirty up by the time this coproduction reaches the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Dutch National Opera. Whilst not particularly elaborate, it is a satisfying production – perhaps at times without the atmospheric intensity needed to match some of the incredible and vibrant music.
The singers and chorus, made up in the most part with a black cast from the UK, South Africa and USA, are absolutely outstanding and the household numbers are always substantial in nature. The two American principals, the Porgy of Eric Greene and the Bess of Nicole Cabell, are well matched. The latter might not have a voice of substance, but as actor-singers they portray their roles well together and Eric Greene particularly does not hide his disability throughout his excellent performance. His singing of ‘I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ was stunning.
The opera opens with Clara, whose husband is the fisherman, Jake, singing a lullaby ‘Summertime’ to her baby. Clara is well sung by the ENO Harewood Artist, Nadine Benjamin, and her husband Jake, by the well projected voice of Donovan Singletary. Latonia Moore – previously Aida at ENO – gave a substantial rendition of Serena’s lament ‘My Man’s Gone Now’. Sporting Life, played by the American tenor, Frederick Ballentine, gives us a wholehearted rendition of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’. Crown, the aggressive lover of Bess, ultimately killed by Porgy, was well sung by the American baritone, Nmon Ford, who presented with great vulgarity his song ‘A Red Headed Woman’.
So many of the minor roles are outstandingly sung, including Tichina Vaughn as Maria, the Strawberry Woman of Nozuko Teto and the Crab Man of Chaz’men Williams-Ali.
The Conductor of the evening was the British born John Wilson, making his ENO debut. He set a pacey account of the music as the curtains rose, but as he worked with the great choreography of Dianne McIntyre, he introduced great subtlety of tone with a more languid and colourful interpretation of the rich score in order to enhance the atmospheric tension on stage. The orchestra performed wonderfully throughout the evening.
However, perhaps in the end it was the incredible sounds from all those choral moments that will linger long into the night, together with the genuine feel of affection between Porgy & Bess as they sing together ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’. She certainly seemed to be at that moment, but of course nothing in life is as it would appear!
Kill for a ticket!